Choosing the “best” novels is a nigh to impossible task, but at the top of my list is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The book both exemplifies and defies the genres of the Romantic Era and Gothic mystery; Brontë skillfully uses them as tropes to explore her complex, frustrating, challenging, lovable protagonist. The book is beloved by professors and “lay” readers alike because Jane’s inner life is so real that she not only lives in the pages of the book but with each subsequent reading she seems to grow and speak in a new way to the reader.
Brontë does a deep dive into so many themes through Jane’s persona that it’s impossible to explore them all in just one or two readings; topics such as the roles of women, freedom of the will, the consequences of arbitrary class distinctions and the challenges of living out moral values are presented with subtlety and believability.
If you think about it the plot of Jane Eyre is similar to that of an epic story, both externally and internally. From her bitter and angry response to the abuses she endures as an orphan to her metamorphosis into a woman of strength of will and deep principles, Jane’s journey takes the reader on a wild emotional ride. At first blush it might appear that the plot is a rather picaresque story as Jane moves from place to place encountering various people and experiences. But it is not: it is a plot unified by the development of Jane’s soul as she learns from her forbearing friends to replace her hardened heart with one overflowing with forgiveness and mercy. By the time she meets Rochester Jane’s fundamental Christian character is established, but her ethics are tried by the surprising moral choice with which she is presented. Like the “Crossing the Threshold” stage of Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Cycle, she must emerge from the Valley of Death before finding her true and spiritual heroic status.
After the author has developed the superior character of Jane, presenting it in terms of Christian goodness and morality, Brontë brings in her antithesis, St. John Rivers. (It is not a coincidence that we discover he is a cousin, for he is her alter ego in many ways.) His zeal for religion is real but self-serving, and he himself says he is “ambitious.” It seems odd for a person who is consumed by ambition to want to dedicate his life to missionary work, but Brontë is bringing home the point that true religion must come from a humble servant’s heart. A life dedicated to others is not enough if it does not flow from a loving spirit, and contrarily, a soul which is can serve others anywhere.
The novel also follows both external and internal mysteries. Brontë uses these plot angles to spur the reader on, but the deeper significance of them is to highlight Jane’s spiritual development as she encounters the challenges of life. She could have responded to Rochester’s deceit with bitterness as she did when she had been wronged when younger, but instead she sees his plight and forgives him. She successfully crosses the great moral threshold of her life when she freely both loves and leaves him.
Jane’s desire for freedom – including the freedom to choose right – is prominent in the story. The motif of birds in cages and in flight comes to the fore when Jane says, “I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will.” Jane’s strength of will comes from her belief that she has the ability to choose her moral destiny and she will not, under any circumstances, relinquish that right.
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